FLYING SOLO: Maya Krishna Rao in conversation with Nimi Ravindran

Loved and respected by theatre-makers across the country and abroad, the indefatigable Maya Krishna Rao continues to be an inspiration for the next generation of artists. Although we know of her as a powerhouse performer, Maya has juggled many hats over the years, including that of teacher, educator and mentor. Having premiered her latest show in Delhi she talks to Nimi Ravindran about life, work, politics and her new show, intriguingly titled: Loose Woman

N: Solo performers often refer to being lonely on stage, having been a solo performer for decades, is that something you identify with? 
M: Only in a sense, because honestly, you are hardly ever alone during the making of a work. Except very early on in my case during Khol Do, when I was absolutely alone. I have had collaborators that I have worked very closely with over the years. I have worked with musicians and filmmakers and in the studio I’m always responding to the sound and the images created by them, so I’m never alone. It’s a shared relationship and shared process, we understand and even pre-empt each other, so you’re doubly not alone while creating. But, there is loneliness of another kind, of decision-making, of being responsible for your text and for the shape of the show. Over the years I’ve started anticipating things, so in that sense you get used to it after a while, but yes, decision-making is a very lonely process for a solo performer.

At one point I went and lay down on the lap of a boy and told him that when all of this is over we still have to come to each other.

N: It’s impossible to discuss your work without talking about comedy, everything you do is laced with humour, how important do you consider humour in your work? 
M: Very important. I believe that comedy can heighten our response to things like nothing else can. I remember in 2002, after the riots in Gujarat, I was invited to perform at a book-launch. How do I make comedy at this time? – that was the niggling thought in my mind. How do you open a different door, how do you approach a difficult subject? I truly believe you can only do this with comedy, to be able to think and reflect. I created a performance where I was the homely wife of a professional communalist, a person who instigates and takes advantage of the riot situation. The same man is a different creature at home, he’s a person who can’t function without his wife. It is a very simple and domestic set up, and yes, it was funny. After the show I talked to the audience, and all of them told me how hard-hitting it was, simply because it was funny. I prefer this to making something that is grim and serious.  But you have to remember that comedy is a double edged sword, it is all about the point of view and of perspective. You are not laughing at the thing itself.

Ravanama  Photo Credit: S. Thyagarajan

N: So, how does one deal with the blatant misogyny, with the offensive, racist and sexist jokes in the name of stand-up comedy?
M: Honestly, I haven’t watched enough. But there’s good comedy and there’s bad comedy. For instance, I don’t think there’s anything that you can’t laugh at, nothing is so sacred that you can’t make fun of it, but, it is, like I said, not about laughing at the thing itself. For instance I have never made a comedy around rape, but it is something I think about.  It’s not about trivialising rape or the victim – that would be god awful! What interests me is, how do I challenge this, how do I open a new door. How do I get into this man’s mind, how do I bring out another aspect to this horror? Because it’s also about our socio-political realities. And, everything about people interests me, how did we get here, who are these so-called rapists, and what’s going on in their minds? But, I repeat, there is good comedy and there is bad comedy.

Walk came from a very personal space, a quiet, reflective space that could be shared on any stage.

N: All your works,  at least the ones I’ve seen,  have a clear political stand, but Walk which you created as a protest performance after the Delhi rape case saw you plunge into what some might refer to as political activism, do you agree? 
M: Not really. My work has always been political, all work I think is. But, suddenly after I started performing Walk everyone went, “Maya is only doing political work”. It has always been political, not for the audience maybe because it was not protest performance. In that sense Walk was created for the protest stage, but surprisingly Walk came from a very personal space, a quiet, reflective space that could be shared on any stage. It was almost new year, and yet it was a time of great sadness and deep loss because Jyoti had left us. I wanted to create something that would dip into each person’s heart and mind. Something that could respond to this hugeness, this scale of tragedy. Where does one go with this?
I haven’t faced harassment in decades, but it is not about me, it’s about all of us. I could see all these young people who probably had never been on the streets before, marching from India Gate to Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. They didn’t have to say anything, just the act of walking was so powerful. I wanted to be a part of it, not in front, and not by shouting slogans, I wanted to walk with them, at the back, quietly. I felt that, if only I could walk freely in all the spaces in my city would I be a full and complete person. So that was the origin of Walk. It was not about raising your fist and shouting slogans. It was about taking one step at a time. And, that was how I started performing walk, it came from the need to respond, but in a quiet and reflective way.
N: Has Walk changed you as a performer, and/or as a person?
M: For the last seven years I have only been performing Walk, from places like Jantar Mantar and JNU to small and even smaller gatherings. With Walk you get very little notice, so it’s largely improvised according to the situation and the audience because I usually get only 2-3 days notice before a show, and I decided not to say no to any invitation. The one at JNU for instance happened spontaneously, I was there on some work when I was called to say something, I don’t like speeches so I just went in there and started with one word, “Walk” and I said to myself, “one step at a time.” The whole performance was improvised on the spot.
I saw a girl frantically looking at her phone, I asked her what was going on… and she told me that Kanhaiya Kumar had just been produced in court. That moment transcends performance, immediately I became a messenger I announced to the crowd that Kanhaiya had been produced in court. At one point I went and lay down on the lap of a boy and told him that when all of this is over we still have to come to each other.
Another time I was in a room with just nine women.  I knew I would perform, as did the host, but not the guests. At some point when the conversation was just right, I stood up, played the music and started performing. Walk has taught me to slip in and out of performance and real life because of the stage it occupies. The framework is set but we are always re-looking the context and the audience. It has been performed all over and for many, many different gatherings.

Non Stop Feel Good Show Photo Credit: S. Thyagarajan

N: You just premiered your latest production, fascinatingly titled, Loose Woman. Could you tell us what it was like getting back into performance mode after a long break?
M: It’s been seven years since I created a new piece of work. And, seven years is a very long time. It has been a break from oneself, so you are actually a stranger to yourself. I am a changed person, I am not the person I was seven years ago, my body has changed, my mind has changed. And, yet when you get down to creating a “theatre production”… I mean there is a whole new learning curve. I was worried because in my younger days I just went with my gut, you allowed your gut to lead you.  With age the body is not what it was, and I’ve been in a teaching position, so I’ve been sitting and standing not necessarily moving. And, my concentration! My mind keeps interfering all the time, it gives me thoughts that I have to shut down.
A lot has changed in the last seven years, even the kind of work that’s being created, the creative process for creators, all of it. So when I started working in the studio with a musician, it was all very challenging. As to how the show came about, I had decided recently that I would revisit all my older works and start performing them again. I started with Khol Do and did a few performances. I then went on the floor with Deeper Fried Jam, and while improvising with a musician, we came up with the phrase “Loose Woman”. It was fascinating, we continued improvising on the term woman and looseness and strung together a series of episodes. Everything about the show is loose, we stretched and pulled to see how we could expand on this looseness. We are not drifting, this is the effort and the process, there is a sense of playfulness, but at the same time, we look at everything around us. Our music ranges from blues to rock and we are constantly shifting and changing things, it is continuously getting stretched and pulled. The performance is personal, but also political, at the end she ends up holding Gandhiji’s hand.
N: My last question is twofold:  Firstly, what is the politics of solo performance (if there is such a thing) and secondly the last few years have seen a spurt of young women solo performers have you seen their work and what are your thoughts?  
M: I’ll answer the second first, the only person whose work I’m familiar with is Jyoti Dogra, I have also seen and spoken with Yuki, I look forward to seeing the others sometime soon. I would really love that.
Coming back to the politics of solo performance, I’ve been wracking my brain about this. In life you are never alone, none of us are Robinson Crusoe; we depend on each other for food and sustenance -for our emotional and physical well-being. But when you stand alone on stage, as a solo performer you have to build your world, and shape your show. Even if there are two people on stage who never talk to each other or see each other the equation changes, it’s not the same as a solo performer. It is different from being alone on stage because it takes the bodily relationship out. Things, events, places – that solo body has to create it all, and represent itself not as a person. It forces you to look at yourself again and again. Remember Franka Rame’s Woman Alone? We might have broken out of realism, but realism has its politics.
The other thing about being alone is the freedom of choice. But, it’s like a fundamental right, with freedom comes huge responsibility and here is a woman who creates her own text and takes authorship and responsibility for this performance. And, there is no getting away from yourself. I think that’s quite powerful.
Photo Credit: The Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art website

Maya Krishna Rao is an Indian theatre artist, stand-up comedian and social activist. She is a recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (2010).
The recordings of some of Rao’s works, including Walk, can be viewed on YouTube.
Photo Credit: Twitter

Nimi Ravindran is a writer/ theatre director and the co-founder of Sandbox Collective, a Bangalore-based arts collective.